The ‘big bad villain’ of online shopping is behind problems facing small businesses and chain stores in Wokingham town centre, the council leader has said.

Wokingham Borough Council leader Stephen Conway said the growth of online shopping is leading fewer people to visit town centres.

But he said that eating and dining out could instead become a bigger part of town centre life – adding that there are also ‘success stories’ in Wokingham.

Councillor Conway said: “Because of the shift to online shopping – and I’m afraid this is the big bad villain of the piece – it’s become increasingly unviable for some of the larger chain stores to stay in big expensive town centre locations.”

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He added that this had a knock-on effect on small, independent businesses which rely on chain stores to bring customers to town centres.

Recent store closures in Wokingham include Millets on Peach Street, M&Co on Market Place and Download record store on Rose Street. Branches of Barclays, NatWest and Halifax banks have also closed.

But councillor Conway said a transition to dining and hospitality can help town centres survive. He said: “We’re not going to be able to stop the move towards online shopping.

“It’s a question of saying how do we support our town centres as they go through a period of great change.

“They’re becoming increasingly venues for the kind of resources you can’t get online – leisure facilities, hospitality, cafes, hubs, bars, restaurants.”

Councillor Conway was speaking as the council begins a review of all the properties it owns.

Wokingham Borough Council owns 67 commercial properties in Wokingham town centre, and just four of them are vacant. That’s according to documents presented to councillors at a committee meeting on Wednesday, February 28.

Some of the council’s tenants include Aldi, Premier Inn, Costa Coffee and Waterstones. But they also include local businesses such as Funky Flowers and This Little Piggy.

Councillor Marie-Louise Weighill asked if the council used its town centre property portfolio to balance big chains with small, local independent businesses.

She asked: “Is that part of our role as a council or is it to squeeze as much revenue out?” She added: “I’m not saying that as if it’s a bad thing.”

Councillor Conway said that big firms and small independents ‘support each other,’ as large chain stores attract customers to town centres.

He said: “We are very mindful that we do want to support small businesses in the town centre which are local. There’s no question of that.

“There’s a surprisingly large number of independent shops still doing really well in Wokingham town.”

Councillor Peter Dennis asked if any of the businesses were ‘squeaking about rent’ due to being in financial difficulties.

Assistant director of commercial property Sarah Morgan replied that no business was ‘immune’ to tough economic conditions. She said the council ‘will work with them as much as we can if times are difficult.’